Season's first-half winners and losers
The final chapter of the college football season has been written. Save for a few stragglers, nonconference basketball bonus points have been awarded.
Basketball is not only ready for its spotlight, it's ready for the meat and potatoes of the schedule -- the sometimes gruesome, often unpredictable, never-easy conference schedule.
As everyone gets ready for the games that truly serve as the great divide, it's time to take a look back and see who has emerged ahead of the pack and who is lagging behind, who is on good footing and who is mired in quicksand.
In other words, who were the first half's winners and losers?
Winner: Big Ten
The irony here should not be lost on fans who, like me, enjoy college football as much as basketball. The league keeps expanding for football purposes, yet it's the basketball teams that are prospering. While the pigskin folks limp home after yet another sorry bowl performance, the hardcourt fellas boast the best conference in the country.
The Big Ten went 123-31 in the nonconference season, emerging with six teams in the top 25 and 40 percent of the top 10. What's more, the same league that two years ago gave us 36-33 as a final in a conference tournament game now sports six teams averaging 75 points per game or better.
That's not just good basketball; it's fun basketball.
If there is a loser here, it's Indiana. The Hoosiers, the onetime national champion favorite, may still win the title, but they may not be able to win their own league.
Also in contention: Big East.
Pick an adjective -- icky, anemic, pathetic -- they all work. The football kings are putting out a joker of a basketball conference right now.
Exactly two teams rank in the RPI top 25 -- Florida and Missouri. Next closest? Kentucky at 62. It's a bad league with bad losses, and it won't get better as the teams involved can only beat up on one another going forward.
And if there is a potential ultimate loser here, it's Kentucky. Since the season opener against Maryland, the defending national champions have lost to every quality opponent on their nonconference schedule, leaving only league play to improve their résumé. Which essentially boils down to three chances -- twice against Florida and once against Missouri -- to get good wins and ample opportunity for a crummy loss.
Also in contention: Pac-12, vying for back-to-back honors.
Only in the era of conference realignment can the same league be both an undeniable loser and a winner.
And yet here we are. The SEC is terrible, but just think how much worse it would be if the conference didn't invite Missouri into the fold? The football move is paying huge hoops dividends.
Loser: Big 12*
The conference could have had Louisville, home to the Sugar Bowl winners and basketball's No. 3 team.
Instead it added West Virginia, loser in the Pinstripe Bowl and holding court at the bottom of the basketball standings. The Mountaineers are 7-6.
*Yes, in full disclosure, I'm the dolt who picked the Mountaineers to win the league.
Winner: Mountain West
This is the second-best conference from top to bottom (the Big East is arguably stronger at the top but not to the dreggy bottom), and it's not even close. Four Mountain West teams -- New Mexico, Colorado State, UNLV and Wyoming -- are in the RPI top 25; two more sit just outside of it (Boise State at 33 and San Diego State at 41, which is highest in the AP poll at 15th).
League members are a gaudy 91-25 in the nonconference season, and at least six teams could win the title. Oh, and Boise State isn't leaving, and the basketball tournament is in Vegas.
Loser: Colonial Athletic Association*
Didn't this used to be a good league? Like a year ago? Currently two teams -- William & Mary and George Mason -- have a winning record. Combined, the CAA is 63-92 overall.
And it's not as if those losses are piling up because the CAA went all in on tough scheduling. Of the 92 losses, only 13 came against BCS-league members (and for the record, we're counting Wake Forest and Vanderbilt in that group).
A year ago, Drexel argued that it belonged in the NCAA tournament as an at-large team. Now the league may be forced to surrender its bid.
*Upon further review, maybe the real loser is Virginia, which is inexplicably 0-3 against CAA teams, including a loss to 2-13 Old Dominion. The Cavs are 11-0 against everyone else.
Winner: Wildcats, Arizona version
The heart-attack Cats have won games they couldn't (Florida), shouldn't (Colorado) and probably wouldn't were it not for the level of competition (Utah), remaining undefeated by the width of Sabatino Chen's fingernail.
The glass-half-empty argument says Arizona is tempting fate and perhaps overdue for a loss. The glass-half-full club says finding a way to win is all that matters; the game isn't graded on style points.
Loser: Wildcats, Northwestern version
Someone please give these Wildcats a bucket of rabbit feet or something. Just when there was a glimmer of hope for Northwestern, Drew Crawford was lost for the season, done in by a torn labrum.
Couple that with the September season-long suspension of JerShon Cobb, and you've got a team down two starters.
Naturally, when Northwestern played Michigan, Tim Hardaway Jr. returned from his ankle injury to help out in the Wolverines' rout. Honestly, maybe the Wildcats should change their mascot to Wile E. Coyote and just wait for the 500-pound Acme weight to drop on their heads.
Winner: Shabazz Muhammad
The UCLA freshman went toe-to-toe with the NCAA and won, earning reinstatement on appeal after a three-game suspension. Considering the hard line the NCAA had taken, it was nothing less than a stunning reversal.
As long as a year ago, the NCAA was notifying schools about recruiting Muhammad because of potential violations. Hours before UCLA's season opener, the organization declared him ineligible.
A week and three games later, the NCAA reinstated him upon appeal, penalizing him for the three games served. Muhammad now leads the Bruins in scoring and has helped UCLA to a seven-game win streak.
Loser: Myck Kabongo
Gotta wonder if "I Fought The Law" (and the law won) is playing on a loop on Kabongo's iPod.
The Texas sophomore was ruled ineligible for the entire season following an investigation into impermissible benefits from agent Rick Paul. Like Muhammad, Kabongo appealed the decision.
As with Muhammad, the NCAA reduced his penalty ... from the entire season to 23 games, which is practically the entire season.
Winner: New locations
John Groce took the Illinois job after people essentially grew tired of Bruce Weber, who moved on to Kansas State.
The Illini, picked to finish ninth in the Big Ten, are instead in the top 25, with wins at Gonzaga and a dismissive thumping of Ohio State to start league play.
Meantime in Manhattan, Kan., the Wildcats could just be the second-best team in the Big 12. K-State beat Florida last month and dismissed Oklahoma State in the conference opener, and Rodney McGruder finally seems to be on track with his new coach.
Sometimes change is good.
Loser: Jump-started careers
Larry Brown had been itching for years to get back into coaching. Maybe he should have tried an antibiotic cream instead of taking a job.
SMU has a record that looks OK at first blush, but dig deeper and you'll see that the Mustangs have beaten exactly no one and lost to some rather less-than-stiff competition -- Utah, Rhode Island and Wagner.
The brutally honest Brown knows exactly what he has, and right now it's not very good.
Winner: Russ Smith
Once more wild than wildly entertaining, Russdiculous has tempered his, um, enthusiasm for the game to become one of the most dynamic, effective and, yes, entertaining guards in the country. His motor and scoring have as much to do with Louisville's success as the Cardinals' relentless defense.
Smith is averaging 20 points per game, up from 11.5 last season, but the real number to pay attention to is 44 percent from the floor, up from 35 percent last season, showing how much smarter Smith is with his shot selection.
Loser: C.J. McCollum
Or maybe more appropriately the rest of the country is the loser here. The nation's second-leading scorer is out for eight to 10 weeks with a broken bone in his foot, denying Lehigh its best player and the rest of us the chance to watch one of the game's best at work.
Suddenly those Patriot League battles with Bucknell have lost much of their appeal.
Winner: Catholic 7
The Big East defectors did what they had to do, opting to band together to forge their own destiny. Staying in a league that continued to bastardize itself in an effort to save football was doing the basketball-playing schools absolutely no good.
With reports surfacing that the new league is already negotiating a more profitable TV package, it's already evident that this was both a smart and necessary move.
Loser: Catholic 7
If this early season is an audition tape, they might want to burn it. Of the Catholic 7, only one -- Georgetown -- is currently ranked. Marquette is making some noise but still has to answer for a loss to Green Bay; Seton Hall, Villanova, Providence, St. John's and DePaul remain, at best, question marks.
The teams involved all have great tradition and name-brand recognition to earn respect and that coveted TV deal, but they need to work a little bit on the here and now.
Winner: Kevin Ollie
The first-year head coach pocketed the ultimate vote of confidence when Connecticut gave him a five-year contract extension.
He earned it by shepherding the Huskies through some serious troubled waters, not only keeping the program afloat but somehow keeping UConn relevant in a season when, thanks to a postseason ban, it could have quit.
Loser: Josh Pastner
Still trying to get his Memphis team on track with a signature win this season, Pastner was thrown under the bus with athletic director Tom Bowen at the wheel.
Just a day after Pastner said the Tigers would no longer continue their annual series with Tennessee, Bowen came out and said he'd been in negotiations to extend the rivalry for weeks.
Pastner has shown class, taking the high road in the kerfuffle, but if the relationship between boss and coach is not yet untenable, it is certainly uncomfortable.
Winner: Wyoming residents
The country's least populous state (568,000-plus in 2011) has only one Division I school within its borders, and it's also one of just four undefeated teams remaining in the country.
The 13-0 Cowboys will go for population bragging rights on Jan. 19 when they host San Diego State in a game that ought to be billed as Snow Miser versus Heat Miser.
Loser: California residents
The country's most populous state (37 million-plus in 2011) has 24 Division I schools.
Just one, San Diego State, is in the top 25, and only 10 have records better than .500.
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